I love the holiday season, and to be honest, as much as I hate to admit it, getting to hear those first snippets of holiday music right after Thanksgiving kind of makes me happy. However, all the fun stuff aside, sometimes the holiday season can give a person the blues. There are many reasons why like stress and tension.
I have also noticed a trend where this general holiday frustration seems to seep over into Magic. Perhaps it is simply other frustrations carrying over into Magic (which is often an escape from worldly stress) or maybe it is that people have begun to figure out the new Standard and Limited formats for the latest big set (in this case Return to Ravnica), but I have noticed in the past week that quite a few people I've talked to have been down about the way they play Magic.
"Dear Santa, plz make these cards go away…"
Today's article has all of the trappings and traditions of a classic holiday story (including a happy ending) and will focus on the idea of leveling up at playing Magic. For those of you not familiar with the concept of "leveling up," it's gamer slang that refers to getting better at something through experience. In RPG video games, players fight monsters or do tasks in order to gain experience points, and when one has reached a certain number of points, they "go up a level."
Wouldn't it be great if being good at Magic were that simple? We could go to a bunch of small tournaments and grind experience to level up. In real life, while playing Magic is pretty much always a boon toward the goal of getting better and more familiar with the game, grinding at the local card shop isn't always the most efficient way to improve significantly and, in a manner of speaking, to go up a level.
Here is an example of what I mean by going up a level. One player I have been working with and talking to quite a bit while I am working at RIW is named Gary. Gary is and has been a regular customer for as long as I can remember and is a very adept board gamer and tabletop miniature player. Recently, he decided that he wanted to see what the fuss about Magic was all about and took up playing it as well. Even though he has experience playing games, he has never really played Magic before, so there is obviously going to be a learning curve for things that are kind of unique to Magic.
At first, he built a deck and started to play with some of his friends. Eventually, he tried his hand at playing in FNM. The first couple of outings at FNM he didn't have great results; however, after playing a few times, he started to do better. He had a goal in mind that he wanted to make Top 8 of FNM, which isn't exactly easy because the store gets around 35 players, but with time he reached his goal.
In my mind, this is an example of leveling up.
Gary set a goal and then worked toward making it happen. Before he accomplished his goal, he was a person new to the game that was learning to play and played at FNM. Once he made Top 8 at FNM, he became someone who had gotten past the first barrier and now knows he is capable of making Top 8 and playing for first place in the playoff.
"On the path to the next level."
There are a lot of these little 'subplots' and firsts in Magic that many of you have likely already achieved and that some of you are working towards gaining.
- Winning FNM
- Making Top 8 of a PTQ
- Making Top 8 of a SCG Open
- Earning an invite to a SCG Invitational
- Making Day 2 of a GP
- Finishing in the money at a GP
- Qualifying for a Pro Tour
- Finishing in the Money at a Pro Tour
"I still remember my first PTQ win like it was yesterday."
The list goes on and on, and there are many in between steps and goals that people try to accomplish in the meantime.
The point of this article is that sometimes we get stuck at a certain level and it becomes difficult to make it to the next one. For instance, it is a pretty big step between being able to make Top 8 of a PTQ and actually winning the blue envelope. How does one get from point A to point B? Sometimes it seems like a matter of luck, and to some extent luck plays a pretty big part. But we would like to think after making it to the Top 4 that there was a greater determining factor than 'luck' that decided who won and who lost.
In the past week or so, I played in a PTQ and a few small events and heard similar statements made by four different players, who then asked me for input on the matter. The statement was some variation on the following:
"I feel like I am playing poorly and am not very good at Magic. I think I am just bad at Magic and don't know what to do about it."
I have labeled this phenomenon, of a bunch of players suddenly telling me that they think they are bad at Magic, a symptom of the holiday blues. Perhaps it is that there isn't as much sunlight now, perhaps it is Constructed and Limited being more defined, and perhaps it is stress about what to buy a loved one for Christmas. I have noticed that on occasion I struggle with Magic around this time of year, so maybe there is something to the stresses of the holiday season being projected onto playing Magic. The end of the year is also traditionally a time for reflection and introspection, so it makes sense that if one didn't accomplish what they had hoped to accomplish within the game this year that it could be a little frustrating.
The first thing that these players stressed to me is that they make the same mistakes over and over again, which ultimately ends up costing them games and matches. They said they have an inability to overcome their tendencies to play into the same types of jams over and over again.
Let me start by saying that this isn't actually a bad thing, and I would venture to say that it is actually quite positive. Obviously, losing games in a similar fashion isn't very good, but the statement acknowledges, at the very least, that the player understands what they are doing wrong, which means that it is correctable.
"I play too defensively and allow my opponents to get back into the game."
"I keep bad hands and don't mulligan aggressively enough."
"I don't play around cards and get blown out by them."
"I get tired and unfocused and play worse in the last and often most important rounds of a tournament."
"I don't pay close enough attention and end up missing on-board things that I should notice."
"My opponent had the removal spell AGAIN!"
Everyone who wants to improve at Magic has gone through periods of playing where they've had to make a concerted effort to get better at one of these facets of the game. What's more is that if one of these aspects of the game isn't giving you trouble, there are a million other small things that you can struggle with in Magic. On one hand, it obviously makes for frustrating outcomes when there are so many things that can go wrong that are difficult to control, but the fact that there are so many things to consider is what makes the game great and keeps players coming back for more.
Back to my initial point: understanding that there is some aspect of one's game that's weak, needs tuning, needs more attention, and could be improved is exactly the step the comes before getting the problem fixed. It's like they said on the G.I. Joe educational ads that ran in the 80's: "Knowing is half the battle."
So why then, if we know what's dragging us down, don't we simply fix the problem? For instance, if I know that I keep too many bad hands of seven and don't mulligan often enough, why would I continue to make the same mistake instead of simply correcting it?
Well, the reason is that we as players condition ourselves to play a certain way over years and years of experience.
These bad habits that we develop are kind of like smoking cigarettes. I know that smoking is a problem and that I should quit, so why don't I just quit? Or when I try to quit, why do I relapse into this undesirable behavior? It's because KNOWING is only half the battle; DOING is the other half. Unfortunately, DOING is often much more difficult than simply KNOWING, and often, in order to actually get the point where one can start DOING, one first needs to do a lot of UNDOING.
In the case of mulliganing, there are actually a lot of factors that determine why people struggle with ditching questionable hands. First of all, Magic has gotten a lot faster over the years, with more emphasis being placed on tempo and the first few turns than in the past. Tempo has become more important than other things that used to matter more such as card advantage. Hands that look borderline keepable, that are kind of slow but have stuff to do later on in the game, which may have been good years ago, now might get rolled over by a reasonably fast hand from an opponent. Years of playing tell us that the hand looks playable, but because things have changed, that hand isn't as good as it once would have been.
Or maybe you tend to practice often with your friends, all of whom have a preference for control decks in testing, which makes those land flooded, slower hands much better in those matchups than they are out in the real world. Your experience tells you that such a hand correlates to a win, when in reality the hand is likely to be a loser.
Also, until a player actually starts mulliganing a lot, it's hard to know what kinds of hands one is likely to get after seven and how likely they will be to actually win. Players are told to ask themselves: "Am I more likely to win with this hand of seven or with a random hand of six?" How can someone make this judgment if they're not familiar with what a hand of six with their deck is likely to contain?
One of the ways that I leveled up was starting to make better mulligan decisions. You might be surprised to hear how often I win after mulliganing, especially to five cards! It is much more often than I would have thought possible before I started actually doing it. A lot of times I see players refuse, on principle, to mulligan down to five because they think, "I won't be able to win with only five cards," and they keep a hand of six that was worse than their hand of seven.
Another reason why people struggle with this aspect of the game is that they often mulligan a borderline hand of seven, decide to keep an unplayable hand of six, and then are disgusted with their decision to go to six and wish they had kept their seven. Remember, making a good decision and then immediately following it up with a gigantic mistake is not going to take you very far. In Magic, you are often only as good as your most recent play, so remember that if you make eight great plays in a row and then throw the game away with a very bad one that you are likely to lose.
The Hardest Level I Ever Achieved
Around this time last year, I was at a point with Magic where I was very frustrated with the game. I had a hot streak over the summer where I finished in the Top 16 of a couple of Grand Prix and a PT, but I then found myself on an icy cold streak where I simply could not win at Magic. I finished one win out of the money in four consecutive Grand Prix, couldn't win games at Worlds in San Francisco, and then got absolutely crushed at PT Avacyn Restored. It was a string of disappointment that ran from November through February.
I know and understand how frustrating it is to appear to have gained a level and then feel it slip away. Levels don't actually slip away. The problem is that there were other problems with my game and my play that for a while didn't rear their ugly heads to punish me with match losses. For instance, one of my biggest problems that still haunts me to this day is that I don't always make the best deck decisions because I favor decks that are too fair. For a few tournaments, the fair decks that I liked were good, but when they fell out of favor it cost me.
It's like the mulligan example. If you don't have to mulligan very often, the fact that one's mulligan decisions don't matter makes them irrelevant and transparent.
Anyway, I focused on how I was playing well but losing, which was the wrong thing to be focusing on since my play wasn't so much the issue as the decks I was playing. Another thing was that once I got onto a losing streak, I tried to overcompensate for it by trying really hard to force wins to happen. I found myself in situations where I was playing around cards they probably didn't have and in Limited not playing around rares because they were unlikely to have them and getting punished for these weird lines of play I was taking.
I don't know if other people can relate to this, but when I'm losing, I often believe that I'm playing my worst Magic.
Here is my advice for how to go up a level, as it is what worked for me.
When I got back from another botched Pro Tour, I decided I was fed up and that I was going to quit Magic and never play again. (This is perhaps the least productive part of the story, and I wouldn't recommend quitting in order to go up a level.)
So I took a couple of months off where I didn't touch a Magic card. My cards sat in their boxes or in my backpack, nestled neatly under my bed, and I did other stuff with my time. I went out and caught up with friends I hadn't seen in while, I went to parties, I hit the clubs, and I lived a life devoid of Magic completely. I'd see friends from Magic at social outings, and when they started talking to me about Magic, I'd cut them off by saying that I didn't play anymore.
Eventually, the sting and frustration of losing began to wear off, and I realized that I missed playing the game. I missed playing the game because I like the game, I like the people I've met playing the game, and I simply enjoy shuffling up and playing for fun. It was quite the epiphany: "I like Magic because Magic is fun."
I had this one friend from Magic named Scott W. that I saw weekly at various clubs in Detroit and Ann Arbor who was always trying to get me to come back to Magic. He offered to build me a deck one evening and suggested that I come out to play in a local tournament "just for fun."
"I've got a sweet BPod list. Are you sure you don't want to play?"
It seemed harmless enough. The fact that I couldn't win a match of Magic was irrelevant because it didn't matter if I won or lost since I was "just playing for fun."
So I went to a Standard tournament and played "for fun." To my surprise, I actually had fun—and to my greater surprise, I felt like I was playing better Magic than I had ever played before. By removing the stigma attached to playing to win, where the sole objective of me playing Magic was to win games, and instead focusing on having fun and playing well regardless of whether I won or lost, I was playing much better. I drew my opening hand, examined it, and considered what plays I might make rather than drawing it and being annoyed that it wasn't perfect or being stressed out about whether I was going to draw a fourth land on turn 4.
I shifted my focus from the most important thing being "winning the game" to "playing well and not worrying about the rest," and lo-and-behold, I started winning at a much higher clip. When I lost, I made it a point to congratulate my opponent and told myself that I played my best and losing suddenly didn't feel that bad. The most important thing was that I actually ended up getting better at Magic and that Magic was once again something that I did for fun rather than something that stressed me out.
The moral of the story is that we all have those levels that are difficult to attain and that feeling stuck in a bog can be frustrating. The key is that it happens to everybody, and, as I have learned, it is often simply a matter of perspective. If you are frustrated and not having fun, it is likely going to make you play worse and only compound the problem (which is what happened with me). There are many elements of Magic which can be controlled to one extent or another and some that are difficult or impossible to control. It's crucial to focus on the things that we can control and enjoy the journey of learning and leveling up.
Keep a cool head, have fun out there, focus on recognizing the areas where you can improve when they arise in your matches, and don't worry so much about winning and losing.
"It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game."
If you give your best effort, stay focused, and maintain a positive attitude, you will reach the next level.
Hope everybody is enjoying the holiday season. Thanks for reading.